Let Them Eat IT:
The Myth of the Global Village as an Interactive Utopia

Marshall McLuhan's vision of the "global village" had a Second Coming with the internet surge of the 1990s. There is sharply divided opinion, however, on the question of McLuhan's broader relevance to the cultural morphology of our times.[1] It is easy enough to agree with McLuhan that high tech vastly extends our senses.[2] But his suggestion that this development liquidates spatial boundaries [3] --and thus belongs to humanity, not just to the world's elites--is far more controversial.[4] Some doubt that the New Economy edition of McLuhan's medium-is-the-message technologism can survive the collapse of America's economic bubble. Others wonder how long the global village myth can be sustained in the face of a widening gap between rich and poor nations, and between the rich and poor inside those nations. Bruce Scott foresees more of a global gated community than a global village.[5]

Oddly, most "new villagers" seem oblivious to the fact that their virtual community is under siege. They admit it, if at all, only obliquely. Witness the subtle retreat of Michael Lewis from the pure celebratory hype of The New New Thing (1999) to the rearguard euphoria of Next: The Future Just Happened (2001). In the latter, as James Fallows notes, Lewis is forced to make a contrarian case for why the internet still matters.[6]

Meanwhile McLuhanism continues to inspire a stream of glowing manifestoes. Works such as John Seely Brown's The Social Life of Information (2000) keep the music playing. Orthodox icons of this genre, such as Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital (1995) and Lawrence Grossman's The Electronic Republic (1995), are still in vogue. Their born- again McLuhanism envisions an online community where people can realize control over their government and social world as well as their consumer choices.[7] This is the cultural revolution that Esther Dyson et al. attribute to the information revolution. It marks a shift from a culture of mass production and mass mediation to one of customized knowledge and demassified engagement, not to mention flexible production for a fast-changing market.[8]

Dick Morris, in Vote.com, elaborates the politics of this putative shift. Just as the Net empowers individuals by eliminating commercial intermediaries such as travel agents and stock brokers, Morris expects the individual citizen to profit politically.{9] During the last presidential campaign, for example, John McCain established a highly effective website address for donations. Small contributions poured in, finally reaching about $3 million per week. Some see this direct approach to campaign funding as the start of a whole new politics. While the Dyson group looks on this digital revolution as a new American frontier, Andrew Murphie stresses its global reach.[10] Not to miss a good bandwagon, Al Gore speaks of a "Net effect" that is already linking "the world's people" in a vast informational exchange.[11]

That very linkage, however, puts the ethical and political status of the global village in serious doubt. African intellectuals have been quick to note that most of the world's six billion people do not even have access to telephones, much less computers.[12] Whereas free market liberals tend to see IT as force of global harmony, Robert Manning foresees nations coalescing around regional economic and currency zones--that of the dollar, the euro and the yen-RMB. Regional and sub-regional trade agreements are taking shape in the absence of global leadership, and sometimes as a reaction to U.S.-dominated economic globalization. With rare exceptions, informational globalization serves that same cause.

Manning calls this the Pogo problem: "we have met the enemy, and he is us."[13] But there are other reasons for this refractory turn of events--the biggest one being the instability that results from the world's growing inequality. Neoliberals and free market globalists fail to face the widening gap between the glittering wealth of transnational corporations and the poverty suffered by a third of the world's population. Presently three billion people--nearly half the world's population--live on less than $2 a day, while another 1.2 billion live on less than $1. 15% of Chinese and 40% of South Asians are among the poorest of the poor.[14]

The sad truth is that the would-be Global Village is in fact part of this problem. The global distribution of IT is grossly uneven, making for what has come to be called the digital divide. Recently the Group of 8 addressed this growing disparity between the informational rich and poor.[15] There has been much talk of turning this growing divide into a "digital opportunity," and it must be noted that some private nonprofit groups have taken steps in that direction. For instance, American Assistance for Cambodia is trying to establish a permanent Internet bridgehead through schools in northern central Cambodia, in an attempt to reverse the communal destruction of urbanization.[16} Africa Online, an East African company in Nairobi, works with eight countries to provide Internet connections for people who currently lack phones.[17] Meanwhile AT&T in Alaska is selling the Net to Alaskan Native villages,[18] and 170 million Brazilians are currently being "netted."[19]

Such efforts will not close the global divide, but at least it can be said that they dwell (on however small a scale) in the realm of the possible. Global villagism, by contrast, enters the realm of science fiction with Nicholas Negroponte's proposed "virtual" remedy for the problem of inter-city homelessness: give each homeless person a laptop computer![20] No one who even dimly comprehends the meaning of hunger or homelessness could advocate such a "let them eat IT" solution. Even Bill Gates is becoming skeptical of easy techno-solutions to problems such as illiteracy, poverty, and a lack of minimum health care.[21] Nor can the Internet be expected to "put an end to war."[22] Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, believes that IT developments in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) could make an already dangerous world even more perilous.[23] What is certain, for better or worse, is that the Net is profoundly changing our lives. Dana Blankerhorn notes a growing tension between the winners and losers of the high-tech New Economy,[24] which can no longer be viewed as an unambiguous savior.[25]

Like the negative and positive effects of other forms of globalization, computer-based technoculture has its progressive and regressive sides, as highlighted by William Mitchell's E-Topia and Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion, respectively. While IBM sells computer literacy in its "solution for a small planet" campaign,[26] others celebrate this Web "revolution from above" as a path to a futuristic society with "more work, more economic growth, more environmental protection and more democracy."[27] Rushkoff, by contrast, argues that "cyberspace is turning into yet another venue in which consumption takes precedence over communication."[28] Contrary to his previous advocacy of the digital revolution, Rushkoff now warns that the Web can better be described as a marketing dream come true: a place where marketers can identify users, but users cannot recognize each other.

In opposition to this "Big Brotherism,"[29] Rushkoff seeks the "rehabilitation of all the human values undermined by scientific salesmanship and obsessive consumerism."[30] He seeks, that is, community as opposed to commodity, and social communion as opposed to alienation. Amitai Etzioni--who likewise stresses the moral prerequisites of a good society and decries consumer "me-ism"[31] --is skeptical of communities built around Internet connections.[32] By reminding us of what real community entails, Rushkoff and Etzioni cast serious doubt on the possibility of an online "third place" or "virtual community," as advocated by Ray Oldenburg, Richard Goodwin, and Howard Rheingold.[33]

Similarly, Anthony Spina laments the decline of geographically based live communities, which the Net can never adequately replace.[34] To Spina, a community is "a group of people who are different yet interdependent and are bound together by a common set of responsibilities."[35] By contrast, a lifestyle enclave on the Net is "a group of people who choose to be together because they share some common dimension of importance, such as professional status or preferred leisure activity. Whereas public, informal gathering places bring together a wide variety of individuals to share a common space, lifestyle enclaves are segmented and tend to encourage the narcissism of similarity."[36]

In Internet and Society (2000), Norman Nie and Lutz Erbring report that increased Internet usage results in decreased community activities.[37] This is understandable in view of Thomas Valovic's charge in Digital Mythologies (2000) that the average American devotes eight to eleven hours per day to TV and/or PC tube-time.[38] The new "digitalitis," to coin a term, is creating the social isolation that it is said to overcome. Cyberhoods and virtual communities spell the death of real communities.

What, it may be asked, is their effect on the geography of economic life? We know that IT has already reshaped much of the cultural and economic landscape of major cities. By the early 1990s, IT-related economic growth, in enclaves like the Silicon Valley, as well as the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, were more suburban than urban.[39] Many of these "midopolises" were custom-made for "nerdistans" who embraced the ethos of IT entrepreneurialism [40] even as they thought of themselves as progressive-minded.

It was only a matter of time before that balancing act collapsed. The downturn of the New Economy put this IT avant-garde on a collision course with the historic cultures of the regions they occupied. That collision amounts to a fall from grace in terms of the reigning ideology of the digital revolution. To understand this fall it is necessary to grasp how the IT ideology was sold to the general public. Not only was it packaged as the prime mover of the New Economy, but also as a democratic distributor of the New Economy's gains.

Thomas Frank, in One Market Under God, tells how IT was powerfully applied as a weapon in the making of market populism. This is the belief that "market forces, if left scrupulously untouched by regulators and unions, would automatically act out the people's will."[41] Believers in market populism see the logic of the market as "a functional equivalent of democracy."[42] People like George Gilder and Kevin Kelly hold that computers and the Internet transfer power to the common man,[43] so that we the people "choose" the colors of everything. Kelly believes a "new spiritualism" will be required to inaugurate "network economics." Here the word "spiritual" connotes an ideological leap of faith.[44] The Internet becomes a cosmic affirmation of the principles of market populism--a vision of "laissez-faire incarnate"[45] --this at a time when only 20 percent of American families have been reaping large increases in income and the number of personal bankruptcies is eight times higher than in the Great Depression.[46]

Likewise, Gilder's Microcosm welds the computer inextricably to free market ideology.[47] His law of the microcosm ordains that all hierarchies will vanish: "'Rather than pushing decisions up through the hierarchy, the power of microelectronics pulls them remorselessly down to the individual.'"[48] In Life After Television he turns his populist revolt against the government and "all forms tyranny," including all cultural hierarchies.[49]

The market populism that began with Gilder reached a peak with Jon Katz's distinction between "digital citizens" and "intellectual elites." The former put their faith in business and technology while embracing online trading as their "long-awaited market populist messiah;"[50] whereas the elites, in Katz's view, operate like Kremlin communists.[51] Conversely, Frank argues that the Web, far from liberating its users from hierarchy, simply blurs "the line between the People and corporate America."[52] Against the egalitarian claims of Kevin Kelly's all-embracing Netism, in New Rules for the New Economy (1998), Frank contends that the Internet's "connexity" (a reference to Geoff Mulgan's book Connexity) is a place where "the leftist dreams of yore" have been co-opted as the silent partner of New Economy ideology.[53] Like Michael Roberts, who views IT as a new centralizing power,[54] Frank sees Netism as a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Leo Marx cautions that despite its pivotal role in the global economy, with its instantaneous financial transactions and its powerful impact on global popular culture, IT is also contributing to corporate "downsizing" throughout the world. Marx is doubtful that IT can "fix" the afflictions of social and economic injustice.[55] On the cultural front, Roger Rollin holds that the IT effect, far from being liberating, is part of a general "Americanization" or "McDonalization."[56] The resulting global village is none other than an updated and vastly expanded version of the old "culture industry." Popular culture theory has been too fast in dismissing Frankfurt School concerns of the past. The myth of the global village is an ideological subterfuge that camouflages the real social impact of the IT culture industry.

While "global" perspectives are permitted on the side of IT promotion, they are prohibited on the side of critical theory. Gianni Vatimo notes that the rise of telematic communication, such as TV and the Internet, has been instrumental in dissolving the centralized perspectives that Lyotard calls "grand narrative."[57] Reality no longer possesses depth. As seen in the case of the O. J. Simpson trial, "'. . . everything becomes . . . exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication.'"[58] Oppositional politics has no place in this mediated world of commodities and spectacles.[59]

Carl Boggs doubts that the IT infrastructure can empower ordinary people. Does it counter "the demobilizing ethos of antipolitics?"[60] Contrary to the high-tech optimism of Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who put their faith in IT democratization, Boggs recognizes that the most lucrative enterprises of the twenty-first century will be in the hands of global communications megacorporations such as Disney/ABC, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, AOL-Time Warner, Bell Atlantic and AT&T. By the late 1990s, these entities controlled more than $5 trillion in assets.[61] Boggs concludes that there is "no corporate democracy or citizenship in any meaningful sense."[62] Multinationals amass their economic and political power at the expense of local government and democracy as such. The global village, in short, operates at the expense of real communities.

Recent mega-mergers must be understood in this revised IT context. James Fallows argues that the current Time Warner-AT&T alliance reveals the monopolistic direction of Internet politics and culture. In the hands of giant media companies, "news" is becoming an entertainment-based and dumbed-down commodity.[63] The Web is more and more incorporated under brand names "that are linked to the major players of the global media market." [64]

The interactive and culturally dialogic image of the Web has no place here. In opposition to McLuhan's vision of the global village as a "retribalization of culture," Eugene Goodheart argues that global dialogue is at best a fantasy in this time of ethnic and national conflict.[65] Likewise Bryan Turner, an increasingly disenchanted "cosmopolitan," questions the optimism of early theories of electronic democracy. Recent political thought, he notes, registers the pressures of ethnic conflict and the inescapable particularity of communal solidarity.[66] Where does that put the "America on Line" version of mass democracy? Public opinion polling, its main instrument, is in James Fishkin's view a fraudulent product. In the absence of real, face-to-face debate, the public gives flippant, off-the-cuff responses[67] to questions that once again are "pushed" rather than "pulled," to use the argot of pro-Web magazines such as Wired and Fast Company.

If the Net fails to produce a virtual community at the national level, it all the more fails on a world scale. The idea of a "global village" is a geocultural misnomer. The Web is controlled and populated by First World nations[68] that "push" information and values onto an all too receptive periphery. As Herbert Schiller and Cees Hamelink argue, this global imbalance is widening.[69] Indeed, within the geocultural core there is another kind of "push" taking place: that of blatant Americanization.

The French reaction against cultural centrism has drawn them into an ad hoc coalition with First World anti-globalists and Third World activists at demonstrations from Seattle to Genoa. And increasingly they have mounted legal resistance as well. Recently a French court ruled against Yahoo for selling pro-Nazi materials on the Web. Essentially this ruling said "no" to the ACLU concept of anything goes liberalism. Americans cannot seem to comprehend the good reasons (such as memories of Nazi occupation) that might impel other countries to think differently. Thus the Net is frozen in a single liberal mode. But most egregiously it is driven by the "push" of commercial interest as opposed to the "pull" of cultural pluralism.

To be sure, a reaction is mounting against this digital hegemony. As Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig points out, the U.S. has tried for 50 years to export its values along with its products, but ultimately "the rest of the world didn't buy it."[70] There are many models of freedom, and not all of them consider liberty best protected where Nazism is given unrestricted voice. Nor do they think respect for individualism is best served by the kind of freedom that fosters child pornography. There is growing awareness that the values associated with America's New Economy--an "anything goes" blend of neoliberalism and neolibertinism--have been grossly oversold in the name of globalization.

This ideology trades on an ideological ruse: the myth of the global village as an interactive utopia where content is pulled rather than pushed. McLuhan's technologism well served this New Economic subterfuge. Thus co-opted, he became not so much a global villager as a globalist--not so much a puller as a pusher.


[1] See, for example, the opposite assessments of Eugene Goodheart, "Marshall McLuhan Revisited," Partisan Review 67/1 (2000), online: www.bu.edu/partisanreview/archive/2000/1/goodheart.html; and Alexander Stille, "Marshall McLuhan Is Back From the Dustbin of History," The New York Times (Oct. 14, 2000), online: www.nytimes.com/2000/10/14/technology/14MCLU.html.

[2] See Gertrud Koch, "The New Disconnect: The Globalization of the Mass Media," Constellations 6/1, (March, 1999), pp. 26-34: p. 28; and Benjamin Symes, "Marshall McLuhan's 'Global Village,'" (May 26, 1995), online: www.aber.ac.uk/education/Undgrad/ED10510/ben-mcl.html.

[3] Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects, New York: Bantam Books, 1967, p. 16 and p. 63.

[4] See Arthur Kroker, "Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan," CTHEORY (July 5, 1995), online: http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=70.

[5] Bruce R. Scott, "The Great Divide in the Global Village," Foreign Affairs 80/1 (Jan./Feb. 2001), pp. 160-77: P. 160.

[6] See James Fallows, "Beyond the Tech Bubble," The Atlantic Online (August 29, 2001), online: http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/fallows/jf2001-08-29/index.htm.

[7] See James Fallows, "Internet Illusions," The New York Review of Books, (Nov. 16, 2000), 47/18, online: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/13891.

[8] Ester Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler, (Oct. 22, 1994), "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age," online: www.pff.org/position_old.html.

[9] See Fallows, op. cit.

[10] Andrew Murphie, "The Dusk of the Digital is the Dawn of the Virtual," Enculturation 3/1 (Spring, 2000), online: www.uta.edu/huma/enculturation/ 3_1/murphie.html.

[11] Quoted in Koch, op. cit., p. 28.

[12] Ibid., p. 29.

[13] See Robert Manning, "The New 'New World Disorder'?" Intellectual Capital.Com (August 3, 2000), online: www.intellectualcapital.com/ issue397/item10249.asp.

[14] See Nayan Chanda, "The Digital Divide," The Far Eastern Economic Review (Oct. 19, 2000), online: www.feer.com/_0010_19/p50binnov.html.

[15] John Markoff, "It Takes the Internet to Raise a Cambodian Village," The New York Times, (August 7, 2000), online: www.nytimes.com/library/tech/ 00/08/biztech/articles/07berm.html.

[16] Ibid.

[17] See "Tapping into Africa," The Economist (Sept. 9-15, 2000), online: www.economist.com/editorial/freeforall/current/ir3776.html.

[18] Thomas L. Friedman, "Digital Divide or Dividend," The New York Times (March 16, 2000), online: www.nytimes.com/2001/03/16/opinion/ 16FRIE.html.

[19] Jennifer L. Rich, "Compressed Data: Brazilians Think Basic to Bridge the Digital Divide," The New York Times (Feb. 12, 2001), online: www.nytimes. com/2001/02/12/technology/12BRAZ.html.

[20] Nicholas Negroponte, The New York Times (Dec. 16, 1994), Op-Ed page essay.

[21] See Kumar Venkat, "Bill Gates, Skeptic," The New York Times (Nov. 7, 2000), online: www.nytimes.com/2000/11/07/opinion/L07GAT.html.

[22] See "What the Internet Cannot Do," The Economist (August 18, 2000), online: www.economist.com/editorial/freeforall/current/Id0592.html.

[23] Jack Beatty, "Be Afraid," The Atlantic (April 6, 2000), online: http://theatlantic.com/unbound/polipro/pp2000-04-05beat.html.

[24] Dana Blankenhorn, "The Internet Meets the Real World," Intellectual Capital (July 6, 2000), online: www.intellectualcapital.com/issues/issue 389/item9946.asp.

[25] Damien Cave, "Is the Internet a Bad, Bad Boy?," Salon.com Technology (Nov. 6, 2000), online: www.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/11/06bad_internet/index.html.

[26] Kirsten Hall, "Are You Connected?," Critical Mass 2/3 (Feb. 23, 2001), online: http://hoshi.cic.sfu.ca/~cm/issue6/kirsten.html.

[27] Reinald Dobel, "Power and Powerlessness in the Global Village: Stepping into the 'Information Society' as a 'Revolution from above'," Electric Journal of Sociology 4/3 (1999), online: www.icaap.org/iuicode?

[28] Harvey Blume, "Digital Culture: Alternate Realities," The Atlantic (Jan. 13, 2000), online: www.theatlantic.com/unbound/digicult/de2000-01-13.htm.

[29] Symes, op. cit.

[30] Blume, op. cit.

[31] Michael D'Antonio, "I or We?" Mother Jones (1994), online: www. motherjones.com/mother-jones/MJ94/dantonio.html.

[32] Amitai Etzioni, "Book Review: Community as We Know It," a review of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam, New York: Simon & Schuster, Intellectual Capital (July 20, 2000), online: www.intellectualcapital.com/issues/issue 393/item10/09.asp.

[33] Robin Hamman, "Introduction to Virtual Communities Research and Cybersociology Magaizen Issue Two." Cybersociology, Issue 2 (Nov. 20, 1997), online: http://www.members.aol.com/Cybersoc/is2intro.html.

[34] Anthony Spina, "Virtually Alone," American Outlook Magazine (Winter, 2001), online: www.hudson.org/American_Outlook/articles_wn01/spina.htm.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel, "Digital Geography," American Outlook Magazine (Winter, 2000), online: www.hudson.org/american_outlook/articles_wn00/kotkinsiegel.htm.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Thomas Frank, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, New York: Doubleday, 2000. p. 57.

[42] Ibid., p. 57.

[43] Ibid., p. 59.

[44] Ibid., p. 59.

[45] Ibid., p. 79.

[46] Mark Dery, "Digital Culture: With Liberty and Justice for Me," The Atlantic (July 22, 1999), online: http://theatlantic.com/unbound/digicult/dc990722.html.

[47] Frank, op. cit., p. 80.

[48] Quoted in Frank, p. 81.

[49] Ibid., p. 82.

[50] Ibid., p. 146.

[51] Ibid., p. 84.

[52] Ibid., p. 148.

[53] Ibid., p. 351 and p. 357.

[54] Michael Roberts, "The Dread of Technology," Critical Mass 2/3 (1995), originally from The Ontarion 118/13 (Nov. 28 - Dec. 4, 1995), online: http://hoshi.cic.sfu.ca/_cm/issue6/dread.html.

[55] Leo Marx, "Information Technology in Historical Perspective," in Donald A. Schon, Bish Sanyal, and William J. Mitchell, eds., High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999. pp. 131-48: pp. 146-7.

[56] Roger Rollin, "Introduction: On Comparative Popular Culture, American Style," in Roger Rollin, ed., The Americanization of the Global Village: Essays in Comparative Popular Culture, Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989. p. 2.

[57] Gearoid O Tuathail, Critical Geopolitics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. p. 227.

[58] Quoted in O Tuathail, p. 227.

[59] Carl Boggs, The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere, New York: The Guilford Press, 2000. p. 214.

[60] Ibid., p. 267.

[61] Ibid., p. 269.

[62] Ibid., p. 270.

[63] Fallows, op. cit.

[64] Aidan White, "New Media, New Headaches," The UNESCO Courier (Feb. 2000), online: www.britannica.com/bcom/_/0,5744,348313,00.html? query=information%20technolog.

[65] Goodheart, op. cit.

[66] Bryan S. Turner, "Risks, Rights and Regulation: An Overview," 2001, unpublished paper provided by the author.

[67] James S. Fishkin, "Beyond Teledemocracy: 'America on the Line,'" in Amitai Etzioni, ed., The Essential Communitarian Reader, New York: Rawman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998. pp. 55-60: pp. 57-8.

[68] Seongcheol Kim, "Cultural Imperialism on the Internet," The Edge: The E-Journal of Intercultural Relations (Fall 1998), online: http:// kumo.swcp.com/biz/theedge/Kim.htm.

[69] Herbert I. Schiller, Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500, Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981; and Cees J. Hamelink, Information Imbalance: Core and Periphery in Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction, London: Sage, 1990.

[70] Quoted in Jonathan D. Glater, "Hemming in the World Wide Web," The New York Times (Jan 7, 2001), online: www.nytimes.com/2001/01/ 07/weekin-review/07GLAT.html?printpage=yes.

Songok Han Thornton is a doctoral candidate in the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at National Sun Yat-Sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Her dissertation will address the global politics of the Asian Crash of 1997-98.